50 Greatest Players in World Cup History: #34 Eusébio
When one utters the word 'Portugal' in a footballing context, the first name that comes to most millennial minds is, perhaps, Cristiano Ronaldo. Ask someone older than 30 or 40, though, and they'll name a certain African-born legend who changed the entire complexion of Portuguese football starting from the mid-1900s. Eusebio. Learn the name, recognise the greatness.
Widely recognised as one of the finest players to have ever played the game, Eusebio, also fondly known as the Black Panther or o Rei (the King), was discovered in Mozambique as a teenager before subsequently immigrating to Portugal with the help of Benfica's then coach Bela Guttmann. In hindsight, his immigration was probably the best thing that could have happened to Benfica and Portugal.
Eventually, in a career that spanned over two decades and saw him play for 9 different clubs (with 15 years of it being with Benfica), Eusebio racked up a combined, jaw-dropping tally of 423 goals in 431 games (317 of which came in just 301 matches at Benfica, helping them win 11 League titles during his time there)
An exquisitely prolific striker, there wasn't much Eusebio couldn't do on a football pitch. He was quick, agile, strong and possessed a belter of a right foot. He also had a decent left foot and could even use his head when situations demanded it.
Of course, there was no stopping him on the international stage either. Representing the Portuguese National Team for over 12 long years, Eusebio scored 41 goals in 64 games and was the country's leading goalscorer until Pauleta overtook him in 2005.
For all his heroics, Eusebio was, unfortunately, a part of only one major tournament for Portugal - the 1966 World Cup, and boy did he make it his own. Slotted in a group alongside Brazil, Bulgaria and Hungary, Portugal's Black Panther led them to their best ever finish in a World Cup as they finished 3rd behind England and West Germany.
42 years on, that campaign still stands as Portugal's best ever performance in a World Cup and that should tell you enough about just how significant an accomplishment that was.
Not impressed yet? Wait, there's more.
The Brazil side that they were pitted alongside in the group stage were undergoing their famous renaissance period and were entering the 1966 World Cup as two-time defending champions, having lifted the trophy in 1958 and 1962. Hungary were no pushovers either and had finished as quarter-finalists in the 1962 World Cup.
Now, considering that Portugal had qualified for their first ever World Cup, few expected them to upset the likes of Brazil and Hungary. However, what followed will forever be narrated as a fairytale in Portuguese households.
In their first group game against Hungary, Portugal emerged victorious after a 3-1 result stunned the Hungarians. In their second game, Portugal dismantled Bulgaria 3-0 with Eusebio scoring his first goal of the competition.
Their third and final group stage game was against Brazil, who needed nothing short of a win to qualify. Imagine stepping up to face the two-time defending champions while they were desperate for a win.
Ironically, Portugal's greatest group stage victory came in a time of adversity against their toughest opponents yet, as they silenced the Seleção 3-1 on the back of a crucial brace from Eusebio.
Proceeding to the knockout stage, Portugal came up against an intimidating North Korea side in the quarter-finals of the tournament. Make no mistake, they were intimidating. The Koreans had eliminated two-time winners Italy in the group stages.
25 minutes into the game, North Korea were up 3-0 as Portugal seemed set to be tossed out of the World Cup in unceremonious fashion. Told you. The Koreans were certainly intimidating.
And then stepped up Eusebio. Portugal's hero, their protector, their saviour. Despite the game looking like it was all but sealed, o Rei seemed to have different ideas. The Portuguese striker knew he needed to throw in the kitchen sink and he went on to throw in the whole damn kitchen.
Scoring 4 consecutive goals - two of which came before half-time while the other two came after - Eusebio engineered one of the most glorious comebacks in the history of football, and what a time to do it. By the time he was done, Portugal had recovered from a 3-0 deficit and had the game by the neck before eventually winning it 5-3.
With 7 goals in his first 4 World Cup games, Eusebio led Portugal into the semi-finals against England where their campaign was eventually halted as England got the better of them with a 2-1 scoreline. Again, it was Eusebio who scored the solitary goal for Portugal.
Drowned in disappointment after a glorious run, Portugal took on the side from the Soviet Union in the 3rd-place match and yet again, it was Eusebio who first found the net, allowing Portugal to win the game 2-1, finishing 3rd in the 1966 World Cup - Which, till date, still happens to be their most successful World Cup campaign.
Portugal may not have won the trophy in 1966, but they had won respect and recognition while also putting themselves on the footballing map. Eusebio finished the tournament as the leading goalscorer with 9 goals, subsequently becoming the first player ever to win the Golden Boot. In not just the World Cup but in the only major tournament he ever played.
Since then, Portugal has seen some sensational players represent them, with the likes of Luis Figo, Pauleta, Deco, Pepe and Cristiano Ronaldo rising to prominence. However, not one of these modern greats has managed to surpass Eusebio's significance for the national side, and that speaks volumes about the kind of legendary footballer Eusebio was.
True class, indeed, and he's rightfully in Sportskeeda's list of 50 Greatest World Cup Players.